Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Author and Essayist, Dies at 67

New York Times/April 26, 2002
By Douglas Martin

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, who emerged as a popular, prolific writer of keenly observed nonfiction with a 1978 book about the dozen years she spent as a Jehovah's Witness, died on Wednesday at a hospice in Manhattan. She was 67 and lived in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said her daughter, Anna Harrison. She once wrote that for years she smoked six packs of cigarettes a day.

The turning point in her life and career was her decision, at 22, to leave the Jehovah's Witnesses, which forbade a college education. What followed was a successful self-education and a blossoming into a multifaceted writer of literate travel books, many essays and reviews, and a novel.

With "Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses" (Simon & Schuster), she became nationally known; her later work, mostly nonfiction, usually received excellent reviews.

In The New York Times Book Review, Vivian Gornick said "Visions of Glory" was "quite well written, contains a mass of absorbing information, and the personality of its author is extremely appealing."

Ms. Harrison was converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses faith by her mother when she was 9; she went door to door carrying its message. At 19, she went to live and work at its world headquarters, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in Brooklyn Heights.

After three years there, she renounced the faith and left.

"Visions of Glory" mixes her autobiography with detailed historical research. She portrays the religion as racist, sexist and totalitarian, but also details members' kindness to one another, their care for the elderly and their courage in the face of persecution.

Barbara Grizzuti was born in Jamaica, Queens, on Sept. 14, 1934. She grew up in various Brooklyn neighborhoods, mainly Bensonhurst. Her father, a printer, and her brother, Richard, did not become Jehovah's Witnesses, creating a deep fault line in the household. She wrote of an extremely disorganized family, and of a father who sexually abused her and once tried to kill her.

As a young teenager, Barbara already knew she wanted to be a writer. When asked in an interview in "Contemporary Authors" how she could reconcile this ambition with the tenets of the Jehovah's Witnesses, she suggested that the religion's images of the watery creation of the world and its imminent bloody destruction stimulated her imagination.

"I think the two things were going on simultaneously: the religion encouraged something it was bound to squash," she said.

In her autobiography, "An Accidental Autobiography" (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), she wrote, "I read Sartre in my late teens and made the mistake of taking him seriously."

After leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses, she moved to the East Village and worked as a secretary at a publishing house and at the American Committee on Africa. There she met W. Dale Harrison, whom she married. He took a job with CARE, and they lived in Libya, India and Guatemala.

They returned to Brooklyn with their two children, and she wrote that she thought of herself as "one of those furtive, silly housewives with a novel under her apron."

Her first book, "Unlearning the Lie: Sexism in School" (Liveright, 1969), grew out of the children's experiences with efforts to quell sexism at what was then the Woodward Park School in Brooklyn.

The Harrisons divorced in 1968 after eight years of marriage.

Ms. Harrison was an early writer for Ms. Magazine. Often described as a gifted interviewer, she contributed to many other national magazines and newspapers. She was noted for her humor and her strong opinions; she once called the highly regarded novelist Joan Didion a "neurasthenic Cher."

Her other books included "Italian Days" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), an impressionistic and literary travel book about Italy that won the American Book Award, and a novel, "Foreign Bodies" (Doubleday, 1984).

Ms. Harrison is survived by her daughter, who lives in Bethlehem, Conn., and her son, Josh Harrison of Manhattan.

Her daughter said her mother returned to the religion of her early childhood, Roman Catholicism, in her 40's, partly as a result of interviewing Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement and partly because she hoped to meet in heaven the high school English teacher who had first appreciated her writing.

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